Today, I’d like to introduce you to my friend Bert Kaufman, Head of Corporate and Regulatory Affairs at Zoox, one of the hottest self-driving car start-ups in the Valley. I’ve previously written about why tech companies need policy teams more than ever, and Bert’s work is at the forefront of this.
When I first met Bert, we had already heard of each other, and immediately hit it off. In addition to being extremely kind and generous, Bert is a killer combination of a big-picture, systems thinker – from his days in Washington – and an embodiment of the generous, action-oriented, and creative start-up culture in the Valley, where he currently works.
In this interview, I ask him about his transition from Washington to Silicon Valley, issues surrounding self-driving, what he wishes Government folks knew, and how else he thinks technology should be harnessed for public good.
This is my third profile piece on folks who work at the intersection of tech and public good, following Xinwei Ngiam and Kenneth Tay. Enjoy!
Tell us a little more about yourself. Why did you move to the Valley after almost 8 years in Washington?
I spent most of my time growing up on the East Coast and down South, so from a cultural standpoint, I always thought Washington was a great mix of north and south—“The Northern most Southern city.” From a professional standpoint, I am a lawyer who loves policy issues, so I gravitated towards Washington after law school. But what I discovered about myself over the past decade is that I really love building organizations and organizing initiatives around good ideas. And there is no better place in the world to build these things than the capital of innovation and entrepreneurship. My move out to the Bay Area was prompted by my fiancée who was in graduate school at Stanford, and because my role as an appointee in the Obama Administration was winding down.
What did you enjoy most about your job in Washington and how did it prepare you for your current role at an autonomous vehicle startup?
Before joining the Obama Administration in 2013, I spent five years growing an organization called Business Forward. We started Business Forward to help business leaders from across the country do a better job of advising Washington policymakers and, conversely, to make it more efficient and transparent for policymakers to listen to business leaders. Through that experience, I faced the challenges of building an organization from scratch and learned the importance of taking a long-term view. Our funding came from about 60 large companies—our members—and I traveled around the country, engaged with thousands of people, and learned about issues that businesses of all shapes, sizes and ages faced as the country emerged out of the 2008-09 financial crisis.
That experience prepared me for the chance to join Penny Pritzker’s team at the Commerce Department. Not only did I get to work for an incredibly brilliant, demanding, and hard-working leader in Secretary Pritzker, but I also had the opportunity to help build and manage an initiative we created called the Presidential Ambassadors for Global Entrepreneurship. This initiative worked across The White House, Commerce and State Departments, USAID, the Small Business Administration, NASA, and with some of America’s most successful entrepreneurs to mentor, motivate, and in some cases fund aspiring entrepreneurs from across the U.S. and around the world. I also worked on policy issues related to the digital economy on areas like data privacy and cybersecurity.
In my role now, as an in-house lawyer working on policy in a sea of engineers and computer scientists, it’s important to communicate clearly and to understand the policy implications of the technology that we’re developing. This is important both within my organization and externally. Transportation is a highly-regulated space, for many important reasons. As a society, we want people to move around freely, but we also want to ensure that they can do so safely. The advent of autonomous vehicles will lead to innovation in road safety. What we are doing is so new that we have the opportunity to create best practices that can set the bar for future policy.
Policy is really important to any technology business intersecting with regulated markets. Technology startups that fail to consider policy or regulatory implications do so at their own peril. Conversely, regulators need to understand that the regulations should be nimble, flexible, and fair and not cumbersome. These principles will allow technology to advance on a level playing field.
What is one thing you’ve learned or experienced that you wish your colleagues in Washington had a chance to?
Meaningful innovation is hard and takes time, so it is important to take a long view. Government can and should catalyze and support innovation through funding basic and applied research and challenge grants. Government should set ambitious policy goals while at the same time leaving innovation to the private sector.
For example, between 2004 and 2007, DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) set out some “Moonshot-like” challenges and put forth a modest amount of prize money for autonomous vehicle-related technology. Today, the payoffs are huge. The teams that competed in those challenges are the fathers and mothers of all the autonomous driving R&D now taking place across the entire automotive industry. In other words, a series of small government challenges have generated an enormous amount of private sector investment and job creation. Two lessons here: the first is that a little can go a very long way; the second is that government set a goal, got out of the way, and let academia and the private sector drive the evolution of the space.
Self Driving Car technology is one of the hottest areas in the Valley. What are a few things the international community should know about Self Driving Cars?
Three points here:
- First, autonomous technology will usher in a paradigm shift as large as when we transitioned from the age of the horse and carriage to the age of the automobile. Getting around will allow for increased productivity, and for people who live in areas with poor access to public transit, it could make it easier to access jobs and opportunities. We will also think about real estate differently. For example, much of real estate today is built for and around the automobile. Think parking lots and parking garages. In a world of shared autonomous vehicles, demand for parking decreases.
- Second, the first rollouts will happen in cities in a ridesharing model, not in vehicles sold to end customers. Cities can benefit from shared electric, autonomous transportation because it will ease congestion and decrease pollution. As more people move into cities, the idea of individual car ownership becomes less tenable. In this model, liability shifts away form individuals towards fleet managers and manufacturers.
- Finally, and most importantly, safety is paramount. In the U.S., more than 35,000 people are killed every year in automobile collisions. Most of those fatalities are caused by human choice or error. Autonomous vehicle systems will be designed to interact safely on the roads with other road users like human drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists.
Moving away from Self Driving Cars, what is one problem in society today – perhaps one you encountered at the Department of Commerce – that you think we can solve more aggressively using technology?
I think that technology, correctly harnessed and understood, has the potential to improve the lives of many. Technology underpins most of our economy today, and it’s only going to compound over time, so we need to use technology to do a better job of training and educating people for the jobs of the future. Governments can identify important priorities and strategies and incentivize education and training so that people are prepared and trained for an evolving economy.
Finally, as I said earlier, if the private sector’s job is to drive innovation, government should work to ensure that there is an adequate social safety net in place for all people as the economy changes.
Thanks, Bert, for sharing your insights!